Oct16SunA sermon on Genesis 32 October 16, 2022 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
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- Pr. Sebastian
It was almost pitch black, a little after midnight,
and he was all alone.
The polygamist had left his wives and concubines and children and their possessions on the other side of the river just a few hours earlier,
and he was waiting and watching,
sitting on the cold damp earth,
peering into the darkness,
trying to make out what was a shadow,
what was real, what was his imagination.
So much had happened since Jacob was last in the area,
about 20 years prior.
At the time he had been fleeing his older twin brother Esau
who wanted to kill him for cheating him out of his birthright,
(the special blessing promised for the first-born male.)
Jacob had fled almost 700 km to his uncle Laban’s estate,
to work for him and to seek a bride.
There he had married his two cousins Rachel and Leah,
and had fathered 11 children with them and their two maids,
and had become quite wealthy,
This wealth gained by hard work but also by trickery and deception against his uncle.
Jacob had been told by God in a dream that it was now time to return home, back to the land of his birth, to confront Esau.
But now his servants who had gone ahead had discovered that Esau was approaching with 400 armed men, and so he was scared…he had many flocks of sheep and camels, goats, donkeys and cows,
but no army to protect himself,
so he figured his best bet was to put together a large gift of a good portion of all his flocks and send it ahead of him as a present to appease his twin who was surely going to kill him otherwise.
Perhaps Esau might change his mind if the gift was large enough?
But now there was no turning back.
He had sent his family on ahead…he needed to spend the night alone,
and ponder and pray about what was about to happen.
“Oh God” he cried, “you told me to return to my homeland,
you promised to make my offspring as numerous as the sand of the sea…will I die tomorrow?
Will I lose everything I’ve gained?
Was this journey for nothing?
Was this all just a big mistake?
Oh God I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me.
When I left here I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me…
I am a very rich man. Save me from the violence of my angry brother!” (MSG)
Time seemed to stand still that cold night
as Jacob was praying and fretting.
He was at the threshold of one of the most important days of his life.
He was squinting into the darkness,
trying to determine what was real and what was a vision,
When suddenly, something jumped out at him.
A man, a strong muscular man,
taking him by surprise,
threw him to the ground and pinned him down.
But Jacob knew a few grappling moves himself, he eluded the grasp and put the man in a chokehold,
Yet the stranger then threw him off
and the wrestling match began.
They were out of breath, panting,
sweating for hours on end,
they shed their clothes as they were getting so hot,
but no one ever seemed to have the upper hand,
they were evenly matched, almost as if they were twins.
Hours and hours went by, But gradually the birds b egan to sing and the first rays of sunshine peaked over the horizon. The man seemed distressed that the dawn was soon to come and that he hadn’t yet wrestled Jacob into submission, so he cheated and struck a low blow, on Jacob’s hip socket, put the hip out of joint,
And demanded: “I have to go! It’s daybreak”!
Jacob gasped: “I won’t let you go until you bless me!”
So the man responded:
“Alright. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel, God-wrestler, you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through (MSG).”
And he blessed him.
Jacob named the place “God’s Face” because he said “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story” (MSG)
The sun rose, the strange man had disappeared, and Jacob left that place, exhausted, limping because of his hip.
His identity had shifted, his reality was changed,
he was the same man but now different, he was ready to face Esau.
Do or die, he had wrestled with God in the night and was prepared for anything the new day would bring.
—-What a mysterious story, with so many unanswerable questions.
This nighttime encounter testing the abilities and the limits of human and divine, is strange and confusing.
Did Jacob wrestle with a man, or was it an angel,
or was it God himself?
Was it a dream, a vision,
or a real physical experience?
Such a strange account,
But it maybe describes the life of faith better than any story in the Bible.
Because in a way, life is a set of struggles we pass through,
and our faith life is how we make sense of these struggles,
how we see God as part of them or not.
As an image, a metaphor for our life of faith,
this nighttime wrestling match is very helpful. Let me (try to) explain.
Have you ever had a dark night of the soul?
I’m sure most, if not all of you here,
have experienced nights that have seemed like a never-ending struggle, nights where you thought that the day would never come,
There was so much anxiety, pain, and distress:
Perhaps a night spent in the Emergency Department with a sick child,
Or the night before an important job interview,
Or the sleepless nights deciding whether to buy or sell your house,
or the long nights at a hospital bed where a loved one lay dying.
There are those nights which are a struggle, a fight…where one wonders: what will the new day bring,
is the decision the right one?
what if my loved one will be gone,
what if I lose my shirt in this transaction,
These nights may turn to a nightmare,
and your lack of sleep due to worry has you wondering
whether your mind is playing games with you.
The nights when the ultimate things in life are at stake:
our health, close relationships, our livelihood, or our home,
when huge decisions loom
and we struggle to find clarity because
sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an easy answer,
and there is much we could lose.
Esp. when it comes to bad health news,
I think we’ve all experienced it,
the shock and disbelief at the COVID diagnosis,
or cancer or MS, ALS, stroke, Alzheimers you name it,
and we spend the night struggling, and crying out in lament:
“why God, why?”
And no matter the outcome,
even if there’s a successful surgery or good recovery,
or even if there isn’t, if death comes, or permanent injury,
the struggle leaves scars,
Every deep wound leaves a scar,
a mark to remember it by,
We all depart from our night of sorrow and struggle with a limp.
Like Jacob, even if the night ends in a draw,
we have our battle scar to prove what we have gone through.
Jacob wrestled with God in the flesh that night,
that is the conclusion of the story,
as strange as that may sound,
but actually it isn’t that weird,
And I think this story tells us it’s perfectly OK to wrestle with God,
It’s OK to ask the complicated questions,
It’s alright to struggle with the divine.
One woman once asked:
“Why did God take away my husband? I’m so mad at God right now!”
And that’s a perfectly good wrestling match with God…
esp. if it doesn’t end there.
Wrestling with God could mean gaining a more adult understanding of one’s faith and rejecting a simplistic children’s version of faith,
Like understanding that God is not a white bearded man on a cloud.
Or grasping that God isn’t like a chess master or a banking machine.
Struggling with God could mean accusing God:
“Why do bad things happen to me?”
Wrestling with God could mean asking “why do I have racist tendencies?”
Wrestling with God could mean asking God:
“why is attendance declining at so many churches?”
Or “why do you allow so many people to die of hunger every day?”
Wrestling and struggling with God involves revealing your doubts and your questions in prayer, and taking the time to listen and see how God wrestles back.
Struggling with God and faith is difficult work.
We often need to strip ourselves of preconceived notions.
Trying to find answers for life’s difficult and most important questions is strenuous, and takes everything we got,
and leave us with scars and limps afterwards,
But there are also—Blessings.
When we struggle and argue with God,
this intense deepening relationship can give us new hope,
new meaning and new life, we can be blessed through the encounter
if we allow ourselves to be open to it.
If we end up completely bitter, jaded and closed off
to any new visions of God or new interpretations of faith,
then we might leave empty-handed,
but if we keep our minds and souls open,
then the blessings will flow, perhaps in new ways than we imagined,
And we might receive a new outlook or identity like Jacob did.
And our faith in God who loves us more than we can imagine,
who is willing to take on flesh and blood to show us,
This faith might well be strengthened and rewarded.
As our Hymn of the Day invites us:
Ask the complicated questions,
God makes strong our weakness, forging faith in fires of doubt.
Don’t be afraid of the faith struggles,
These dark nights of the soul,
They are never comfortable,
But we can learn from them, be changed by them,
And realize that even though faith and life are complex,
And we may be left scarred by our battles,
God is there to bless us
in to the new day.